The umpires strike back, and back, and back again
If you tune into baseball games to see the umpire strike back, the All-Star break couldn't come at a worse time. July is already shaping up as one of the best months ever for ejections.
Since the calendar turned over, 17 players, managers and coaches have been sent to cool off early, the same number that were tossed during the first weeks of April, May and June combined.
The early leader in the clubhouse for best exit was Blue Jays pitcher Jon Rauch, who got a jump on things by shedding his jersey and hat even before stalking off toward the stalls. Then Tigers manager Jim Leyland did Rauch one better. Leyland was still standing in the dugout when he got tossed for the second time in nine days, shortening his trip to the showers to a matter of steps.
''Like I said after that one, something is going on,'' Leyland said Thursday. ''It's just not good when there's that much tension around.''
Even with another day to think things over, Leyland hasn't figured out what's causing all the pile-ups between the umps and players, managers and coaches.
''In no way, shape or form am I blaming the umps. I want to be clear about that,'' Leyland said in a phone call from Kansas City, where his Tigers were preparing to play the Royals. ''We've all got to do better, especially with what happens right after a call somebody doesn't like is made. For the good of the game, everybody needs to relax a little bit.''
Blame it on rising temperatures, the replay videos available at every turn, a handful of Triple-A call-ups filling out the umpiring crews as vacation relief, or the mounting frustration some clubs express as their spring-training dreams circle the drain even before the season hits the midway point.
Then again, as Angels manager Mike Scioscia suggested the other day, maybe it's just ''cyclical.''
''I haven't noticed anything that would point to it being anything but random,'' he said.
So far, Scioscia's guess is as good as any other. According to MLB figures, 93 players, managers and coaches were ejected this season through June 30, less than the average of 102 over the same time period for the past half-dozen seasons. The totals have ranged between a low of 78 and a high of 116.
''You're never going to figure it out. And maybe if the umps got it right once in a while,'' chuckled Hall of Famer and former manager Earl Weaver, ''you wouldn't be having all these problems.''
Weaver acknowledged a moment later that he's hardly impartial. He's third on the managers' list of all-time ejections with 97, trailing only Bobby Cox (131) and John McGraw (117). Weaver also watches only two dozen or so games a season from his home in Pembroke Pines, Fla., but he does have a theory.
''Umps are human beings and they have to take a lot of guff, so to some extent, they've always been like that,'' he said. ''But from what I see, more and more they're taking exception to just about everything. I had plenty run-ins, but it seems like the old guys were more secure about the job. It's almost like the newer guys are being taught how to be mean in ump school or something.''
Increased use of instant replay might ease the tension, but current rules allow it only on home-run calls, and there's no chance of that being expanded anytime soon. Former manager Joe Torre, now an MLB executive vice president, has been working on mending fences between the umps and the clubs and a committee is weighing the merits of instant replay against the time it would tack onto each game.
But even if a decision to expand the use of instant replay was made, it would require amending the collective bargaining agreement. Negotiations are currently under way on a new CBA, but the topic hasn't even been seriously broached.
Besides, players, managers and coaches are all over the map on the issue.
''I think you could expand it, but to what degree, I don't honestly know,'' Leyland said. ''I do not want to take human element out of the game, especially since we ought to be amazed how many times those guys are right.
''But it's the way the situations are being handled after the call that we have to get straight right now. I know Joe Torre is working his fanny off, but the relationship has got to be workable. Like I said, maybe we all just need to relax a little.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org